Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?

The generic Facebook face, as reimagined by artists who are also Facebook users.
Portraits by Jason Lee

Let’s begin with a typical parable of life in the era of web 2.0. On Presidents’ Day, Julius Harper turned on his computer at 9 a.m. This was later than usual, but he had the day off from his job as a video-game producer in Los Angeles. He began his daily “blog check”—Digg, Reddit, “anything interesting, disasters, plane crashes”—before turning to a post on the Consumerist, a consumer-advocacy blog, about the finer points of user privacy on “Facebook’s new Terms of Service: ‘We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever,’ ” it read. “Facebook’s terms of service used to say that when you closed an account on their network, any rights they claimed to the original content you uploaded would expire. Not anymore. Now, anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later.”

Harper, a 25-year-old graduate of the University of Southern California, didn’t like this too much. “I thought, This is bull-crap,” he says. With a few clicks of his mouse, he created a protest group on Facebook, which came to be called People Against the New Terms of Service. “That’s the first group like that I started,” he says. “The other ones I’ve made are just for my friends, like Hey Guys, Let’s Go See Watchmen This Weekend.” Around 10 a.m., he drove to Wal-Mart, where he bought several Healthy Choice lunches for the upcoming workweek. By the time he arrived home, at noon, over 800 people had joined his group. Soon the membership rolls reached 20,000. The next day, NBC Nightly News came to his home in Valencia, California. He checked their I.D.’s at the door. “I thought they might be from The Daily Show or playing a joke on me,” he says. “I mean, I’ve seen Borat.

Overnight, Harper had become a consumer-rights activist, and his protest was turning into a PR disaster for Facebook, a social-networking site of about 200 million members that is both based on an expansive idea of community and invested in controlling it for commercial purposes. Soon, the company’s 24-year-old paterfamilias, Mark Zuckerberg, who also owns over 20 percent of the company’s shares, joined the discussion. We’re family, he seemed to be saying. On his blog, he protested that there was nothing to worry about because “in reality, we wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want”—a version of the “Trust us” comment that Google’s Eric Schmidt made to Charlie Rose last year—but, if anything, his remarks only threw fuel on the fire: Why change the terms if it didn’t matter who owned what? And anyway, the issue was more a matter of a kind of pre-rational emotion than any legalistic parsing of rights. What people put up on Facebook was themselves: their personhood, their social worlds, what makes them distinctive and singular. It was a pursuit-of-happiness type of thing. No one else should be permitted to own it.

But Facebook is as sensitive as any politician to feedback from its constituents, especially on the issue of privacy. No other social-networking site provides users the kind of granular privacy settings for their profiles and applications that Facebook does. After Harper received a call from privacy experts who wanted his support in a $5 million FTC complaint—“I was like, ‘Whoa, we don’t care about money,’ ” he says, “ ‘we’re just trying to get the TOS changed’ ”—he heard from a Facebook spokesperson, who asked him for a memo summarizing his group’s complaints. Harper put these together carefully. He thought that Facebook should allow users to decide whether their information could be used for commercial purposes, inform them of which third parties have access to their content, and delete a user’s information the moment he closes his account. Furthermore, changes to the TOS should be made visibly and put to a vote before implementation. Also, it was important that Facebook write its legal documents in a straightforward way. “No Latin!” he wrote. “I’m not sure what forum non conveniens means, and I shouldn’t have to.”

But Zuckerberg made a bold move, aligned with Facebook’s corporate image: He turned the site into a democracy. He decided to reinstate the former TOS, then released a new version a week later that took broad latitude to use our content while we were on the site but fell short of claiming ownership, and that Facebook revoked its rights to our content when we delete our accounts. This version was open for user comments until March 29. Facebook will release its response to the comments by April 10 and put the entire document to a vote by all users during the week of April 20.

Portraits, clockwise from top left, by Rodrigo Corral, Karen Hsu and Alice Chung, Jason Lee, and Mark Korsak.

With the vote, though, Zuckerberg set a high bar—perhaps an impossibly high bar—for user voices to be heard: It will be binding only if 30 percent of members cast a ballot. That’s about 60 million people. “You can’t get 60 million people to agree on anything, so the fact that Facebook is requiring it makes this all seem a little fake,” says Harper, over lunch at a Hawaiian fast-food restaurant near his office in Burbank, California. Harper is stiff and proper, with a pressed shirt and a silver cross around his neck, yet now he shifts his eyes downward uneasily. Facebook listened to him, and he is uncomfortable judging it. “I have to think that they are showing good faith here,” he says, then nods his head. “I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

If there were one word to describe what Facebook has added to my life, I would use it. It’s a multidimensional pleasure: It’s given me a tool for exceptionally mindless, voyeuristic, puerile procrastination; crowd-sourced pesky problems like finding a new accountant; stoked my narcissism; warmed my heart with nostalgia; and created a euphoric, irrational, irresistible belief in the good in men’s hearts among the most skeptical people I know—people who should know better. As the dominant social network on the web (the Internet began, essentially, as a social network, with Usenet in the late seventies) Facebook has created a space similar to a college quad, where members can check each other out, talk about culture, gossip, and pass mash notes. Users really like Facebook; they believe in it so strongly that they want to protect it from itself. That much is clear from the anger over the redesign, released a couple of weeks ago, meant to outmaneuver Twitter in the realm of speedy exchange of information—a redesign that, ironically, created a much louder protest, at two-and-a-half-million users and counting, than Harper’s protest about the security of one’s personal information. As of now, Harper’s group has around 148,000 users. Organizing has basically come to a standstill. “We’re waiting to see what Facebook does next,” he says.

This is a crucial moment for Facebook, and a delicate one, because We, the users, are what Facebook is selling. “Facebook is walking a fine line of keeping the trust of its members, and wanting to exploit them for profit,” says Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch. “It’s having a tough time balancing the two.” In 2007, the company was valued at $15 billion, after Microsoft bought a 1.6 percent stake for $240 million, but profit has been elusive. If they can solve this problem, come up with a viable business model—one might note that if they charged $1 a month for the service and even half its users stuck around, it would take in $100 million each month—it could go public and even become the first big IPO to reinvigorate the market; if Facebook doesn’t, Zuckerberg & Co. will struggle to resist a takeover by a very rich tech company (well, Microsoft) for a fire-sale price of a billion or two. After CFO Gideon Yu announced his exit last week, the company claimed that it was looking for a replacement with public-company experience, but the way forward is far from clear. The history of social networks is an absurd one of missed opportunities, from Tripod to Geocities to AOL, though Facebook thus far has avoided their pitfalls. It’s been unaffected by Friendster’s technical glitches and its taint of uncoolness; Facebook’s antiseptic design clears away the lascivious, spam-ified, knife-wielding clutter of MySpace, a site that was double Facebook’s size in the U.S. eight months ago but whose technological innovation has been stymied by News Corp until recently.

Facebook is exceptional at public relations. Harper may think that it’s impossible to get millions of people to join hands, but Facebook’s particular genius has been convincing 200 million people to color within the lines, to behave a certain way without being told to. When it moved the lines a bit with the redesign, the company issued a statement that it only meant well—“Whenever we build something new or tweak something old, our motivation is the same: to help you share with the people you care about,” it said—which wasn’t strictly true; advertisers seemed to be more prominent on the home page, for one thing, and group pages were redesigned to look like “friends.” For users, it can feel like information is rushing toward us as through a beer funnel, too much information about too many people, much as on Twitter, though that’s part of why Twitter is still largely used by tech-heads, nerds, and those who work in marketing or want to market themselves (though all bets are off regarding Twitter when the war over social networks on mobile heats up).

Portraits, clockwise from top left, by Alan Dye, Mark Korsak, Michael Gibbs, and Seth Labenz and Roy Rub.

Still, Facebook was clearly spooked by Twitter—and spooked, also, by the fact that we were spooked. Because this is how social networks collapse. Do things feel uncomfortable? Am I oversharing? Are others oversharing? Or is the company stealing my soul by mining my personal information? Wispy perceptions. A slight paranoia. And then, for no rational reason, a queasiness sets in, the comfort level drops, and people start to drift away. One day the numbers are growing exponentially, and the next they’re stagnant, none of the users are actually showing up, and there’s another network that’s getting all the buzz. Friendster had numbers. AOL had numbers. It’s like the Yogi Berra line: Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded. It’s easy to join on the web and just as easy to leave.

I’m part of one of the fastest-growing segments on Facebook, users over 30, and I’m a late-adopter. About three years ago, a trendy 22-year-old colleague who wore T-shirts with slogans like THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE over her ample chest invited me to join, but I did not accept, as we were friends of no sort. Soon, my e-mail box began to fill with weekly requests from slightly more mature friends—or, at least, people I know vaguely—to “Check out my Facebook profile!” Just like the boomers who missed out on the Summer of Love finally threw on some tie-dye and flocked to EST in the seventies, Gen-Xers have eagerly embraced Facebook as a chance to join millennial culture—the Paris Hilton–posey, authority-loving, hive mind of kids today—through Facebook. Says a friend in her forties, “Facebook makes us feel very young, which feels really great. Connecting with old crushes, even younger.” I’m not a joiner by nature—I have never been to a high-school or college reunion—but by last year, acquaintances at parties were no longer asking me “What’s your e-mail?” the way they have for the past few years, since they stopped asking “What’s your phone number?” (No one can be bothered to use phones anymore, even cell phones.) Now they were saying “I’ll find you on Facebook.” And if you weren’t on Facebook—where were you?

Because on Facebook, people are doing things. Their “status updates” say they are at the Cardio Barre, or haggling over prices at the Range Rover dealership, or making soup from scratch at home; in fact, it seems to me that someone is always making soup. This information scrolled rapidly down my screen when I was staring at my computer at work, and maybe it wasn’t quite as fast as Twitter, but the people providing the information were twice as important to me. It formed a constant reminder that there was still a real world out there with real people walking around in it, even if they had chosen to leave that world for a moment to join me in the pretend, Facebook world. On Facebook, I didn’t have to talk to anyone, really, but I didn’t feel alone, and I mean “alone” in the existential use of the word; everyone on Facebook wished me well, which I know not to be the case in the real world; and, most important, there was nothing messy or untoward or unpleasant—the technology controlled human interaction, keeping everyone at a perfect distance, not too close and not too far away, in a zone where I rarely felt weird or lame or like I had said the wrong thing, the way one often feels in the real world. This is the promise of Facebook, the utopian hope for it: the triumph of fellowship; the rise of a unified consciousness; peace through superconnectivity, as rapid bits of information elevate us to the Buddha mind, or at least distract us from whatever problems are at hand. In a time of deep economic, political, and intergenerational despair, social cohesion is the only chance to save the day, and online social networks like Facebook are the best method available for reflecting—or perhaps inspiring—an aesthetic of unity.

In any case, these status updates formed a pleasant collage, a kind of poetry, like first-draft scribbles in Gertrude Stein’s notebook—the poetry of the mundane. Emily is in the heavenly land of Williamsburg; Brian is tired and sweaty from a day of playing the Safety Ape and a clam and garlic pizza; Elizabeth is reading, happily, with sunshine through a windowpane—and then got sucked into the vortex that is Facebook. This micro-knowledge of others has been termed “ambient awareness” by sociologists, a new kind of social proprioception or ethereal limb, and I learned to flex it with ease. But I thought that I would take a different angle for my first status update, something suitably ironic and a little bit outré: Vanessa is doing cocaine and piercing her nipples. A Facebook faux pas, I quickly realized. My fellow users pretended not to hear.

Portraits, clockwise from top left, by Alpha Lubicz, Jason Lee, Jennifer Daniel, and Serge Bloch.

This safe and happy community is very much a product of design. The old web, the frontier world of autonomy, anarchy, fantasies, and self-made porn, is being tamed. The flaming, snarky, commenter-board culture that dips in periodically to bang heads against the floor and foster self-hate among humanity’s ranks has been deemed not good for business. Facebook’s relentless emphasis on literal representation—the site maintains a “blacklist” of celebrity names to discourage impersonation and reserves the right to delete anyone who claims to be someone he is not, or who creates multiple accounts—turns out to be the weapon to quell the web’s chaos. Now online life is a series of Victorian drawing rooms, a well-tended garden where you bring your calling card and make polite conversation with those of your kind, a sanitized city on a hill where amity reigns, irony falls flat, and sarcasm is remarkably rare. We prepare our faces, then come and go, sharing little bits of data, like photos, haikus, snippets of conversations—the intellectual property that composes our lives.

Sharing is actually not my word. It’s the most important Newspeak word in the Facebook lexicon, an infantilizing phrase whose far less cozy synonym is “uploading data.” Facebook’s entire business plan, insofar as it is understood by anyone, rests upon this continued practice of friends sharing with friends, and as such it is part of the company’s bedrock belief, as expressed in the first line of its principles: “People should have the freedom to share whatever information they want.” “A lot of times users—well, I don’t want to say they undervalue sharing, but a lot of times they don’t want to share initially,” said Chris Cox, Facebook’s 26-year-old director of products. “And then eventually, they say, ‘Okay, I’ll put a profile picture up here. I’ll do it.’ Immediately, their friends comment on it, and there are no tacky, weird strangers around, and suddenly they start to realize, ‘Hey, wait, this is different. I am on the Internet, but I am in a safe place.’ ”

We, the users, are what Facebook is selling.

Cox, a dropout from Stanford’s graduate program in symbolic systems, is known professionally as Zuckerberg’s better half and twice as handsome. We were talking at the Facebook offices in Palo Alto earlier this year, when I spent three hours in a windowless conference room meeting with executives in one of the company’s ten small buildings near the campus of Stanford University (the company is moving to an office park next month). Colorful graffiti of Facebook-cap-wearing kids waving Facebook flags line the corridors, and semi-ironic signs like THANKS, SILICON VALLEY, FOR INVENTING THE INTERNET! hang on office doors. It’s all very Facebook-y: intimate, twee, and above all friendly, like the research offices of a well-funded postdoctoral project.

I took a trip to visit Facebook because I was interested in the way it is remaking social groups of old friends, so I mostly wanted to talk about that, but all these executives wanted to talk about was sharing. And privacy. And control. (Although I did learn the biggest user complaint on the site: the inability to remove unflattering photos of themselves posted by friends.) They said this kind of stuff: “People have been traditionally too scared to share on the web,” that from another executive, Chris Kelly, the company’s chief privacy officer at the moment, though he is widely rumored to be leaving soon to run for attorney general of California. “They lost all control because they were too open with sharing information,” he continued. “We give them back that control, so they will share again, and we think people will soon be much more comfortable about sharing more with more people.” He cleared his throat. “Ultimately, human beings are very social,” said Kelly. “They want to share. They just want to share with people that they know and trust.”

For all the talk of sharing, it was a slightly tense environment, a little like being in a capsule, hurtling into the great unknown, which is the future of the web. It was all a little vertiginous. In our conversation, we marveled at Facebook’s runaway growth of about a million new members a day, which Kelly called an “explosion.” It’s an astonishing number, but things are moving and changing incredibly fast on the web right now. They know that Facebook’s massive cultural footprint could be washed away tomorrow by forces not yet understood, not least by the micro-choices and preconscious perceptions of its users.

Then again, these are smart guys who have thought deeply about the ways their little planet can perish. They’re not wicked corporate invaders; they’re behaviorists and lawyers, psychology majors and big thinkers. There’s a moral undercurrent to their pronouncements—this is what they’re selling, of course—and they talk the talk so well, it’s hard to imagine they’re not walking the walk, too. “I don’t think of our users as customers,” says Cox. “That reminds me of someone coming into a store and buying a sandwich. We’re all Facebook users here, and our parents, friends, colleagues, and loved ones are Facebook users. This is a much more intimate relationship, frankly. We take it very personally.”

By Deb Bishop.

When we first use Facebook, we’re back in college, and just like the first day there, we really want to make friends. We love sharing: We’ll talk to the loser girl down the hall who only listens to the Eagles, the kid who sits next to us in physics, the R.A. who doesn’t seem as cool as an R.A. should be. Within a week on the service, I had 50 friend requests, many from people I did not recall from any particular time in my life, and there was a certain loss of innocence as I realized this wasn’t a sign of brain freeze: I really didn’t know these people. They were just nice people using the site as they thought it should be used, for social networking, though this isn’t the way cool people use the site, so I quickly de-friended them. (Although one could argue that deciding who to be and not to be friends with on Facebook is the most uncool thing in the world.)

This is part of the magic of Facebook, where many actions that take on weight in the real world simply don’t pack the same punch: You can reconnect with long-lost friends without a gooey, uncomfortable e-mail about why you grew apart; you can forget to return Facebook e-mail and nobody minds; you can click obsessively on someone’s profile and there’s no way for him to know it. “Stalking on Facebook doesn’t feel like stalking,” says Rachel Zabar, my friend from high school. “It feels innocent, like when you were a kid and had a crush on someone and you’d call him and hang up.” At lunch with girlfriends, we talked endlessly about negotiating the boundaries of this new social world: which estranged friends had most recently come out of the woodwork; whose profile was cool and whose was too “Facebook-y”; who was a “Facebook abuser”: “He tried to get all of the people on his friend list to send his mom a birthday note!” The dark art of stalking ex-boyfriends on Google began to shift over to Facebook, as many more personal details were suddenly available there. “I saw Facebook pictures of my ex with his new wife and their new baby on a private jet!” wails a friend. “That was too much for me.” She sighs. “I can’t believe I’m stalking people’s babies on Facebook.”

The deeply voyeuristic pleasure of Facebook, wherein one feels as though one were sucking the very life out of the person whose profile one is viewing, was only part of the story, and many of the conversations that I had with friends about Facebook quickly catapulted past Jane Austen and into the territory of Eckhart Tolle, as we confessed the details of deep exchanges that we’d had on the site, the healing that was going on. A friend got back together with her ex-husband, who had resettled in Norway; another reconnected with a friend who had supported her when she was experiencing sexual abuse as an adolescent. Facebook wants you to form these bonds; it wants to create “folksonomies,” an academic term for what we’re doing when we tag people’s photos and write Facebook haikus to lovers and in general pass the network more and more information, because, by the law of network effects, the more that you parse out your relationships to other people, the stronger their networks become.

Here is another parable about web 2.0 culture: In nursery school at Bank Street on 112th and Broadway, a kid used to bite me—a lot. It was a progressive preschool in the seventies, and crazy stuff happened there—one day, my friend’s mother jumped in front of the subway after she dropped her off at school, and Bank Street chose to share this information with us in class. Gabe would bite my arm while we playing during recess; he would bite my leg when I was coloring in my book; he would bite me when we lined up by size in the hallway, where I, the runt, was always first. (He also put another kid in an empty refrigerator in the teacher’s lounge, briefly.) It took six months for the school to figure out that he was biting me, because the penalty for biting was getting sent home for the rest of the day, at which point the torture abated.

Gabe ended up at Fieldston, and I’d seen him a few times on the Manhattan prep-school social circuit, but I never knew much about him. One day he friended me on Facebook. We agreed to meet for a drink, and he looked sheepish as he told me things that I never knew. He had a learning disability as a kid and suffered from severe ear infections. When we knew each other, he couldn’t speak in full sentences and every day after school he had to meet with a speech therapist. “I was confused and angry as a kid,” he said. “I was so traumatized by my health problems that I didn’t mind fighting. I wasn’t scared of anything, because it couldn’t possibly hurt worse than my ear infections already did.”

This is part of who I am now—somebody who knows that her nursery-school tormentor wasn’t a bully without a heart. It will get logged into my profile, and that profile will become part of the “social graph,” which is a map of every known human relationship in the universe. Filling it in is Facebook’s big vision, a typically modest one for Silicon Valley. It’s too complex for a computer scientist to build. Just as our free calls to GOOG-411 helped Google build its voice-recognition technology, we are creating the graph for Facebook, and I’m not sure that we can take ourselves out once we’ve put ourselves on there. We have changed the nature of the graph by our very presence, which facilitates connections between our disparate groups of friends, who now know each other. “If you leave Facebook, you can remove data objects, like photographs, but it’s a complete impossibility that you can control all of your data,” says Fred Stutzman, a teaching fellow studying social networks at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Facebook can’t promise it, and no one can promise it. You can’t remove yourself from the site because the site has, essentially, been shaped by you.”

This graph, this most intimate of databases, is so immensely valuable, and powerful—if in ways as yet impossible to comprehend—that it is hard to imagine it being held in the hands of a 24-year-old eager to make his stamp on the world. Facebook may thicken social bonds, but it was founded on the ruins of a relationship. Zuckerberg, a confident, privileged programmer and fencer from Dobbs Ferry who graduated from Exeter, started the site in 2004, as a Harvard sophomore studying computer science and psychology. After he created a stir on campus with a mean-spirited comparison of Harvard students’ relative attractiveness (quickly shut down by university administrators), a trio of entrepreneurial classmates, including Olympian rowing twins, approached him to write code for an online Harvard Facebook that they planned to call Harvard Connection. According to the Connection guys, Zuckerberg agreed to the project, then blew them off for a couple months. Then he launched (The three students settled with him for $65 million in June 2008; they are now suing one of their law firms for making them a questionable deal, as the sum was awarded partially in Facebook stock).

Why does MySpace have fewer users? Why do social networks fail?

A slight five foot eight with a cocky attitude but a halting way of speaking, and a near-daily uniform of a fleece paired with a tie, Zuckerberg enjoys his position of power immensely, though a friend says that he doesn’t care about money at all—except he really wants a jet. He used to have a business card that read I’M CEO … BITCH. Sweeping proclamations fall from his lips, as when he declared he had started a “movement” when he opened Facebook’s API to developers, or that “once every hundred years, media changes,” upon the release of Beacon, an ad program that he had to cancel because of user discontent (it was reintroduced as an opt-in program a few months later, and continues with a small number of participating sites today). At his core, he is a programmer—he loves the nerd widgets on the site, like (fluff)Friends—and like most programmers, he believes that more information makes a better world, and a more tolerant one. And he could be right. Your digital self could be even more sensitive, and powerful, than your real self: It could possess more information, and more information is power; it could push progressive cultural norms, like the Saudi women who organized for driving privileges with the help of Facebook; more friends on Facebook already mean more job opportunities, and will likely produce free iPods for those who are identified as influencers by marketers.

But web cognoscenti tend to think that people who worry too much about privacy are sentimentalists who should grow up, and while maintaining a sense of privacy is Facebook’s core strength, it’s hard to believe that Zuckerberg and the Facebook staff are all that different. Facebook does not give advertisers access to personal information, but third-party widget developers are allowed to scrape some of it with user consent (they are prevented from accessing information like e-mails and IM addresses). The U.S. government, plus criminal attorneys and divorce lawyers, don’t technically have access to it either, but it’s not hard to get a subpoena in this country these days. And the developers are sometimes located in foreign countries, which means that they could pass our information to foreign governments. I asked Kelly about this, too, and perhaps he found me too credulous. “So the Indian government knows that you like Bon Jovi, and that’s a threat to national security?” he asked, laughing.

I get his point, but I still don’t like it. Kubrick dreamed of villains like this: nerds in fleece, controlling the information, calling their cult a family. It was an image, a kind of inchoate anxiety about the future, rather than anything you could put your finger on. In many conversations with privacy experts, it was hard to see what, specifically, was upsetting them so much; part of their strategy is clearly to pressure the big dog to set good policies now, so that others follow them later. Twenty years down the road, as algorithms and filtering mechanisms are significantly stronger and we’ve moved from PCs to home monitors with information stored in remote locations—“the cloud”—we will entrust ever more of ourselves to large data centers, many of which are already built around the Columbia River. Facebook already has tens of thousands of servers in a few data centers throughout the country, but this pales in comparison to Microsoft’s facility in Quincy, Washington: Their data center is the area of ten football fields, 1.5 metric tons of batteries for backup power, and 48 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 40,000 homes. An uncanny simulacrum of your life has been created on the web. It may not be too hyperbolic to talk about a digital self, as a fourth addition to mind, body, and spirit. It’s not the kind of thing that one wants to give away.

To get to this endgame, though, Facebook has to get through the current phase, which involves keeping people interested. I enjoyed myself on Facebook until a couple of months ago, when I went to a dentist with a little dog in her office, which she put in my lap during my exam. I found this odd enough to justify writing a status update. Several of my friends commented appropriately—“Not so hygienic, I’m thinking, LOL”—but my friend Judd took offense. “And then what happened, Vanessa?” he sneered. “I mean in a moment like that, there’s you, the dentist, the dog. It puts dog-lovers and dental fanatics and probably some perverts on the edge of their chairs. So go on, WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?”

“This is why you have 100 friends on Facebook and two in real life,” I replied, somewhat lamely. “Oops—now you have one!”

He quickly chastised me. “Suggestion,” he shot back. “Start a group called Everybody Please Hate Judd. I’ll join it! Or rehabilitate me, via Facebook: Encourage me to share, with the kind of warm, dull, 12-steppish type comments that real Facebookers offer each other every day. The truth is, everyone here has gone back to high school, but now they’ve read some books, got some cool corporate skills, and this time, they’re going to win this game. You go girl!”

This was the beginning of the end. Suddenly, Facebook began to irk me—the way friends always posted about procrastinating, being stuck in traffic, needing a nap or a vacation, or seemed to formulate their updates in declarative yet vague form, like “Michelle is upset” or “Roya is pouting,” thus coming off like a needy jerk and making us take time out of our day to plead with them to answer the burning question: “Why are you pouting?” There was the day someone posted about bowel movements. There were too many days when friends, in pathetic attempts to rattle their cages, posted joke updates like “I’m gay!” or “I just got arrested!” There was the day that a friend of mine posted the passport of their newborn, because it was supercute, but I thought of the jpeg finding its way into one of Facebook’s servers and it was just … creepy.

Friends of mine began to freak out, like a guy with intimacy issues who dropped his girlfriend after reading a list that she had posted on Facebook about her favorite memories; another woman became so addicted to the site that she appeared blank-faced and wobbly in the real world, suddenly uncomfortable with unmediated experience. Other friends started to react poorly as well. “One day, I finally sent a Facebook message to the guy who is the love of my life, even though technically I broke his heart,” says a friend, 38. “I said, ‘I know you work at IAC, and I’ve just moved down the street from where you work—do you want to get coffee?’ He wrote me back, ‘I think it would hurt too much. Plus you and I were never the coffee kind of people anyway.’ ” Because he had responded to her message, Facebook allowed her to see the guy’s profile—and, for the first time, she found out that he was married. “I had no idea, and I was so devastated,” she says. “I cried for days.”

Why has the number of MySpace visitors remained essentially flat in the past year? Why do social networks fail? Maybe it’s claustrophobic to know this much about other people. Maybe we like the way the way we’ve been able to live over the past 50 years, the freedom to move where we want, date who we like, and insert ourselves into any number of social cliques, before we cast aside those who bore us and never look back. Independence is a gift, even if it’s lonely sometimes, and solving childhood mysteries may make people happier, but it doesn’t necessarily turn them into the people they dream of being. So we keep perpetuating the cycle of birthing and abandoning new online communities, drawing close and then pulling away, on a perpetual search for the perfect balance of unity and autonomy on the web.

I don’t want to leave Facebook—reloading personal photos and making new friends on another site feels very junior high; it would be a drag. But it’s easy to imagine a circumstance—the wrong ads, too much information about too many people, some invisible level where being commodified starts to drive me nuts—when I might stop showing up, living my life in the real world, checking the site every couple of months. Monetize that … bitch.

Facebook may well turn out to be some sort of democracy, or at least, as Cox says, a “democracy in spirit.” “I think there’s a little-d democratic analogy here, to the U.S. government for instance,” says Chris Kelly. “You don’t get to vote on every budget item: You get to vote for your representatives, and you can rise up in constitutional convention, if you want to organize one of them, but on a foundational level, there’s a consent to be governed.” This might be as much as we can expect on the web. If it is, then our fates are already tied together, because we can either rise up in large numbers, or remain silent—rule-followers, faceless Facebook members.

It’s possible that even Harper will go back being nobody, to doing as he’s told. After all, it’s a big victory, getting an important company to change its Terms of Service, even if it didn’t take all of his suggestions. He’s a busy guy, and apolitical; he didn’t vote in the presidential election, but says that if he had, he would have chosen Barack Obama or Alan Keyes. Last week, Facebook called him again to ask him if he would look over a summary of user feedback before they publish the new Terms of Service on April 10, and told him that it was consulting an independent auditor for the upcoming vote.“I think they wanted some kind of comment like, ‘This totally restores my faith in Facebook,’ ” he says. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’m happy you’re doing this, but I’m not going to be your mouthpiece.’ ” Harper may not fully understand what he’s fighting, but he still wants to fight. He’s not ready to blend in the crowd. Now, he’s even thinking about applying to law school. “I like that my claim to fame is something that helps people, that I’m not Omarosa from The Apprentice,” he says, his brown eyes lighting up. “I’d like to be a person who makes decisions. That would be cool.”

Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?